Help Center Info Architecture – The Who, What, When, and Why

Help Center Information Architecture Blog
Jenn Marie
Jan 24, 20188 min read

If you think your help center is merely a collection of articles, now is the time to upgrade your thinking. Creating a well-organized website and knowledge base can help your audience not only find the information they need but also stay engaged with your website longer. It’s more than the answers you provide, it’s about how you provide those answers.

What is Information Architecture

Information architecture (IA) is a process that helps you organize information in a way that is easily accessible to the user. It ties in closely with usability because websites that prioritize good information architecture also tend to have high usability.

Information architecture is useful for any large body of information. In today’s world, that often means websites, because they often host vast amounts of data in a single place. If it weren’t for information architecture, our internet would be an unorganized free-for-all that no one would have the patience to search through. When you are creating a help center, your user’s ability to quickly find the answers they seek is as important as the answers – making information architecture a vital step when creating any type of knowledge base.

In addition to making information easier to find, information architecture also helps ensure consistency within a brand. Your help center is likely one of many digital assets designed to interact with customers or potential customers, and it should provide the same experience as other forms of digital communication. IA principles make it easy create a uniform, consistent message throughout your knowledge base and entire website. With consistency, visitors will know what to expect when they visit any of your pages, making finding what they need effortless.

Basically, information architecture helps you structure your help center by:

  • Helping you understand what content you have and how it serves the user
  • Identifying gaps in consistency of style and structure within your content
  • Creating diagrams and maps of your content’s location so that you can improve navigability

The process takes time (and some planning), but in the end, it increases your help center’s efficiency and decreases the amount of time it takes to maintain it.

For help designing information architecture for your help center, visit Slickplan.


Why do you have a knowledge base?

Now that we understand what information architecture is, we can start talking about how to use it. The most fundamental aspect of IA is research. You must understand not only who you are creating for, but also why you are creating it. For help center architecture, this is best managed by focusing on something called the minimum viable product. Simply put, this is the absolute bare minimum problem that you need to solve to make your users happy.

Help centers are challenging to create because they can be quite large and must be easy to navigate. Customers and potential customers often have hundreds of questions, and in many cases, it would simply be too overwhelming to place them all in a knowledge base. So, you must choose items that maximize the amount of learning at the lowest possible level of investment. By taking an inventory of all of the articles in your help center, you can quickly remove duplicate or unhelpful answers, reducing user frustration, while lowering costs as well.

The minimum viable product concept is rooted in your understanding of the user’s needs. It prioritizes content that is most helpful to the user based on feedback and research. A well-planned knowledge base will consider input from customers, conduct research, and dig through customer service interactions to determine what pain points customers face. With thorough planning, a designer can understand why a help center needs to be created, and focus on prioritizing content that best aligns with those goals.

Do you need a help center?

Is it time to build a knowledge base? If the following conditions apply, it may be time to start planning:

  • Your customers frequently ask for help with using a product
  • Your customers email for help setting up a product
  • Your customers need help with the ordering process

Instead of answering the same questions multiple times a day, create a content hub of useful articles that explain them and make it easy for users to find. It’s not as hard as it sounds, once you understand who you are helping.

Who are you helping?

Understanding the user is a core foundation of help center information architecture, and it is also fundamental to creating an effective help center. This may seem fairly obvious, but it is actually one of the main reasons why designers fail at creating useful knowledge bases. A help center should serve to help the user and should be structured in that manner. To do this, you have to understand who are asking the questions, as well as how they can best find the answers.

Yes, this means doing some research. Start by asking these questions about your users:

  • Where do our user’s find us online?
  • What type of content do they prefer?
  • How do our users communicate with us?

From these questions, you can determine where to place your knowledge base, whether to use videos, pictures, or articles and even the type of additional support to offer. You’ll need this information later as you decide on navigation design, content hierarchy, and overall site structure.

How will you organize it?

how will you organize it

Help center information architecture is both art and science, even when creating a knowledge base. However, because it is heavily based on the needs of the user, there is some flexibility and room for creativity; you’ll still need to follow a few established steps though when structuring your help center.

  1. Decide on your type of content. If you already know what questions your users are asking, and the kind of content they prefer to consume, it is easy to choose the ideal content for your help center. Perhaps your users prefer short, witty answers or maybe an in-depth white paper is in order. Whatever the content type, know what you are working with before you start building.
  2. Create templates. Consistency is essential for a well-organized help center, and templates are one of the easiest ways to ensure it is maintained. Templates make it easy to communicate your guidelines to everyone involved with creating the knowledge base. They also make it easy to automate repetitive tasks, cutting down on how long it takes to build it.

    Templates give the designer a chance to set standards for users throughout the entire knowledge base. Use them to define naming conventions, identify sections within content, and remind everyone of the purpose of the content. Templates provide uniformity to your knowledge base without making every page look exactly the same.

  3. Create user flows. Your customers need to be able to find the answers that they are looking for; otherwise, your help center isn’t very helpful. User flows, visualized diagrams of the paths visitors take on a website, can help designers create useful knowledge bases that guide every user to the perfect answer.
  4. User flows are critical to creating a knowledge base with information architecture. These pathways define how a user navigates through a website, which may be entirely different than how someone in the company navigates through a site. Whereas an employee may start from the homepage, a consumer may start from a product and work their way back to your website.  Because these types of flows are significantly different, one of the worst things a help center designer can do is create a navigational structure based on the habits of internal users rather than external users. If the goal is helping the customer, you must start by thinking like them.

  5. Categorize your content. You know what content you will post. You know how you want it to look. You understand how people will access it. The only thing left to do is organize it and create the taxonomy.

    Organizing the content in your help center is about creating a hierarchy based on the user’s needs, tagging content so that users can find what they seek, and selecting logical categories. You’ll need to make the most valuable information (your minimum viable product) prominent while keeping the less frequently asked questions accessible. You need to organize everything so that navigation is intuitive to your customer. You don’t want to create a help center for navigating your help center, do you?

Read our related post on organizing blog content with taxonomies to learn more about using taxonomy for help center information architecture.

Once you have followed these four help center information architecture steps, you can then jump into user-focused design by creating navigation standards, utilizing uniform color and branding, and double-checking your content for readability. When you finish, you will have a well-organized knowledge base that is also user-friendly.

When will it be done?

when will it be done

Creating the content for a knowledge base is time-consuming on its own, and when you add the time needed for creating information architecture, the process can be quite lengthy. If you are building a help center for a client or another department, the added time may seem excessive and unnecessary to them, although you understand how vital it is.

Slickplan makes it easy to manage the demands of impatient clients, by enabling online sharing of your work. Gather content from writers, create your hierarchy, save your structure and share it with everyone that needs to see it. When everyone wants to know when it will be done, Slickplan is the ultimate answer to your most frequently asked question.

Jenn Marie
Written by Jenn Marie

Jenn Marie is a freelance copy writer and internet marketing strategist based out of the Seattle area. A true tech evangelist, Jenn previously helped individuals utilize the full potential of Dell, Microsoft and Amazon products. She now focuses on building authentic online presences for small businesses and entrepreneurs through her company, Jenn Marie Writing & Marketing. Find her on LinkedIn

Comments (2)

Jan 08, 2020

Hey Jenn,
Your 4th point of “Categorize your content.” is in it’s own numbered list. So it’s listed as the second point 1. Just FYI.

Jan 09, 2020

Hi Andrew, Thanks for pointing out this error. Much appreciated :)